Of all of the aid workers who have poured into Haiti over the last year, Dr. Sabine Thomas may be one of the most surprising. It’s well-known that Haiti’s earthquake -- just one year ago -- was a major catastrophe. But what is less known is that the volunteer relief effort in Haiti remains a work in progress.
Thomas, a post-doctorate research fellow at Bastyr University on Finn Hill, has brought both a personal connection and natural approach to her work in Haiti. She is a naturopath, meaning she focuses on natural remedies and the body’s ability to heal itself. As it turns out, the naturopathic approach is a particularly good fit with the Haitian population. And the fact that Thomas' family is Haitian makes her especially suited to gain the trust of those in need.
She has returned four times to help Haiti, where the rebuilding and recovery continue.
“We have started a few projects in Haiti and would love help from volunteers: engineers, educators, historians, artists and of course physicians,” said Thomas.
The Kirkland community is invited to attend a ceremony of remembrance of the victims and survivors of the earthquake in Haiti on Jan. 12 from 6:30 p.m. to 8 p.m. at the Bastyr University Chapel.
Thomas said a friend sent a text that first alerted her to the disastrous earthquake.
“The next few days were spent with growing anguish as the pictures of bodies and devastation just continued to be shown,” said Thomas, who was originally unable to reach loved ones. “We did not hear from my family until Jan. 15; three long, agonizing days not knowing.”
Sadly, when she was able to speak to relatives in Haiti, they had unimaginable news.
“I lost my cousin, Valencia Mongérard," Thomas said. "She was a promising and beautiful young woman who had returned to Haiti to apply for her doctorate after receiving her MBA in France.”
Mongérard was killed when the structure of the school where she worked caved in and several floors collapsed.
“She was on the bottom level and, from what I hear, must have died on impact," Thomas said. "She was 24 years old and, as a family, we celebrate her life and legacy every day.”
After getting through the initial shock, Thomas felt compelled to do what she could for the people of Haiti.
“I realized that I could help as a physician. Naturopathic Physicians don’t receive advanced medical emergency training," she said. "But, as primary care physicians, we could very well be part of the disaster recovery teams.”
Thomas, who is fluent in French and Creole, traveled to Haiti four times following the earthquake.
“The goal of the medical missions was to continue to provide relief efforts in the form of medical services as best we could,” she said.
The southern city of Jacmel was hit especially hard.
“This city was terribly affected by the earthquake. We provided primary medical care in a clinic to folks who were living in tents,“ recalled Thomas.
“It looked as if the earthquake had happened a week ago," said naturopath Dr. Chris Holder, who accompanied Thomas on the trip to Jacmel. “Even though we arrived six months after the earthquake.”
Thomas and the team she was working with included naturopaths and an acupuncturist. They treated people with a wide variety of health problems.
“We saw patients come in to be treated for malnutrition, malaria, typhoid fever, wound infection, musculoskeletal issues, post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, diabetes and hypertension,” recalled Thomas.
Despite the chaos around her, Thomas was able to be a productive part of the team.
“Her ability to directly communicate greatly enhanced our team’s productivity, success and organization,” said Holder.
The natural disaster had taken a toll on the Haitian people.
“The earthquake shattered the already fragile infrastructure of the country," said Thomas. "I heard despair in people’s voices, witnessed daily resilience but mostly felt that life has to go on even in the worst of situations."
Their methods of treatment were embraced.
“What makes naturopathic medicine particularly fitting in Haiti is that our primary therapies -- botanical medicine, physical medicine and nutrition -- are already utilized in Haiti," Thomas said. "We were well-positioned to then provide services that are already in line with the health care that patients are receiving.”
Thomas has received help from her community in the U.S., too.
“The Bastyr University community has been an immense source of support," she said. "It’s poured in from everyone and everywhere in the forms of e-mails, hugs, financial contributions, prayers and words of comfort.”
Thomas is hopeful for the people of Haiti.
“As a people, the Haitians have strong resiliency," she said. "Life must go on no matter what.”
If you are interested in learning more and helping, you can contact Thomas at firstname.lastname@example.org.